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“A Time for War”

Is National Defense and Self Defense Biblical?

History continues to be punctuated by fits of lawlessness and warfare. From the first recorded war in Mesopotamia in 2700 BC between Sumer and Elam to today's rumors of war in the Middle East and threats of domestic lawlessness at home, armed conflict has been a human constant. This is "how the course of the world goes (and) this course is irresistible." 1

Writing about the irresistible ebbs and flows of human history, Solomon said,

There is an appointed time for everything.

And there is a time for every event under heaven...

...A time to kill and a time to heal...

...A time for war and a time for peace (Eccl. 3:1-8).

These references to "A time to kill" and to "a time for war" are troublesome to some. Some Bible believers assume that warfare or defense against a violent home invasion are categorically opposed to Christian principles. Various peace and pacifist movements have drawn heavily on these Christian anti-war sentiments. But are such sentiments and principles absolute? This article is written to present the biblical case for war and, similarly, for self defense. While war-mongering and cowboy aggression are excluded, other types of conflicts and the just use of force are approved.

"An Appointed Time for Everything"

Bible commentators argue that Solomon's references to "An appointed time," "A time to kill" and "A time for war" recognize an appropriate, even necessary time for armed conflict. These times are not to be eagerly undertaken, but are not to be automatically sidestepped.  They are to be understood as one side of God's two-sided coin. Peace is always preferable, but war is sometimes unavoidable. As Matthew Henry observed, "War shall not last always, nor is there any peace to be called lasting on this side of the everlasting peace." 2

Two other comments emphasize that war is an unavoidable component of human times and that war is sometimes morally necessary.

The verse also reminds us that while we might be peace-loving individuals, situations may force us to defend ourselves. We might be drawn into conflict, when we really want peace. It should also remind us that we can't remain passive or neutral in all circumstances. There is a time when peace isn't possible. 3

Divine control is marked by an unchangeable order. The times and seasons in which every purpose comes to full ripeness...arise from a fixed order of things...It is illustrated in the life of nations...By great moral crises they rise to superior influence and grandeur...They have times of special duty. Now, by the pressure of circumstances, or by a sense of propriety, they are forced to silence; and again, the time comes for self assertion. Hence...peace and war. 4

An Appointed Time for Self Defense

Questions about the appropriateness of war parallel questions about the appropriateness of self defense. May a Christian defend himself and his loved ones? While macho posturing and rogue gun-play are excluded, reasonable self defense is approved as Jesus said, "let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one" (Lk. 22:36).

As is always the case, context determines the meaning of Jesus words about buying swords. During the time of the Last Supper (Lk. 22:7) Jesus was sharing words with the chosen Twelve (Lk. 22:14). Contrasting the "limited commission" to the coming Great Commission (Lk. 22:35), Jesus prepared the apostles for the dangers they would face by telling them to buy a sword. Nothing in his discussion of "purse, bag or sandals," "Cloak" or "sword" indicates any figurative intent. He was preparing them for danger and not equipping an arsenal – two swords were enough (Lk. 22:38).  Note A

Explaining this passage and expanding his comments beyond self defense, Albert Barnes wrote,

This, then, intimation that great dangers were before them; that their manner of life would be changed, and that they would need the provisions "appropriate to that kind of life." The "common" preparation for that manner of life consisted in money, provisions, and arms; and he foretells them of that manner of life by giving them directions commonly understood to be appropriate to it. It amounts, then, to a "prediction" that they would soon leave the places which they had been accustomed to, and go into scenes of poverty, want, and danger, where they would feel the necessity of money, provisions, and the means of defense. All, therefore, that the passage justifies is:

1. That it is proper for people to provide beforehand for their wants, and for ministers and missionaries as well as any others.

2. That self-defense is lawful.

Men encompassed with danger may lawfully "defend" their lives. It does not prove that it is lawful to make "offensive" war on a nation or an individual. 5

An Appointed Time for War

God's grand design and purpose for nations is not completed in the federal tangle of laws that bedevil our lives. God establishes nations (Dan. 4:17) "so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives" (I Tim. 2:2). In order to secure this great purpose God intended governments to be "agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."  In fulfilling this duty, they "do not bear the sword for no reason" (Rom 13:4).

Roman times help us understand what was written in Roman times. Unlike the great gulf that is fixed between military and police powers in the United States, the Roman military was tasked with internal and external security. Unlike the firearms, armor and airpower that equip our police and military forces, the Roman military wielded a short thrusting sword, and they did not wield their sword to swat bottoms or slap wrists.

John Gill explains,

The "sword" is an emblem of the power of life and death, the civil magistrate is invested with, and includes all sorts of punishment he has a right to inflict; and this power is not lodged in him in vain; he may and ought to make use of it at proper times, and upon proper persons.6

Authorizing capital punishment against internal lawbreakers, this passage also authorizes armed punishment against external, international lawbreakers.  Dropping bombs on Tripoli to dissuade Muammar Gaddafi of international mischief is just as much of a "sword" as a needle in the arm of a convicted murderer. In both cases, God uses governments as "an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." The specific means are immaterial, Roman sword, USAF F-111 or executioner's cocktail.

These legally structured acts of governments against wrongdoers illuminate the sixth command of Moses. Often misunderstood as a command against all killing, Exodus 30:13 is sometimes stated "Thous shalt not kill" (KJV), but is better stated as "You shall not murder" (NIV, NASB, ESV, and etc.). The difference between senseless, mindless and lawless murder and structured, considered and lawful execution is illustrated in Israel's wars against pagan nations and Israel's capital laws against certain sins. The difference between lawless murder and lawful execution of God's wrath is also evident in Romans 13.

Objections Considered

"Peace churches," Quakers, Mennonites and the Amish, have traditionally advocated pacifism. Their objection against all forms of violence is occasionally shared by other religious people. But what are their reasons? Christian pacifism is an extrapolated position and not a position grounded on any specific passages. It is argued, in other words, that general Christian principles of goodness and peace generally mitigate against self defense and against wars waged against evil empires. The absence of specific passages unconditionally condemning all war is a significant objection to the "peace church" position.

Another significant objection to this position is that general principles of goodness and peace can just as easily be used to defend self defense. Is not our defense of family and loved ones a sacrificial expression of our desire for their good and for their peace? The use of arms to further the faith is prohibited (II Cor. 10:3-4); the defensive use of arms is not.

Objecting to the "peace church" position is not the same as entirely rejecting Christian goodness and peace. The biblical right of self and national defense is not carte blanche to pull triggers and drop bombs. Truly, goodness and peace have to be weighed in the balance against bullets and bombs.

Conclusion and "Just War"

Determining the "time for war and (the) time for peace" is one of the great moral challenges of Christian living. This moral challenge is equally abandoned by those who arbitrarily reject all war, capital punishment and self defense and by those who indiscriminately support all war, capital punishment and self defense. "Playing the moral game" is an unserious way of describing the very serious task of "approv(ing) what is excellent" (Phil. 1:10). In this task of
looking at both sides of God's coin, "distinguish(ing) between good and not always easy in our complex civilization". 7

Distinguishing between good and evil war, history's greatest Christian thinkers have formulated the theory of "Just War."

Just War theory postulates that war, while very terrible, is not always the worst option. There may be responsibilities so important, atrocities which can be prevented or outcomes so undesirable they justify war. 8

Principles that distinguish a Just War from a war that is immoral and unjust can also be applied to distinguish between moral and immoral self defense. Among those principles:

1. Violence must be the last resort, only after negotiations, compromise and reasonable appeasement have been tried and failed.

2. There must be legal authority for the use of arms; just as wars are declared by legal authorities for lawfully permissible reasons, acts of self defense should also follow officially permitted protocols.

3. There must be proportionality between the objective and the expense in blood. Many self-defense experts argue that only lives and not property should be defended with deadly force.

4. Acts of aggression, revenge, economic gain or ideological superiority are immoral; only true defense is an acceptable intention for violence.

All of these passages and principles paint a sober and sobering picture. Imagine a nation or a Christian man faced with the very worst of "our complex civilization," an existential threat to national security or a drug-crazed intruder in the middle of the night. Imagine the wrenching decision to send in the Marines or draw a handgun and fire. Imagine God's grim agreement with the solemn conclusion that now is the time for war or that now is the time to kill.

1.  Whedon's Commentary on the Bible – Ecclesiastes 3:8

2.  Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible - Ecclesiastes 3:8

3.  Mark Dungan Commentary of Selected Books - Ecclesiastes 3:8

4.  Preachers Complete Homiletical Commentary - Ecclesiastes 3:8

5.  Barnes Notes on the Bible – Luke 22:36

6.  Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible – Romans 13:4

7.  Robertson's Word Picture sinthe New Testament – Philippians 1:10

8.  Wikipedia – "Just War Theory"

Note A. Please do not tell my wife about the "two swords" limit.